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How the 2003 Anti-Iraq War March Changed British Democracy Forever

Apparently it wasn't the huge waste of time everyone thinks it was.

by Simon Childs
19 March 2013, 8:00am

Photo by Stuart Grifiths

Ten years ago today, deadly bombs started raining down on Iraq. The bombing, which was supposedly the first play in the long game of bringing democracy to Iraq, also had a profound democratic effect on the countries dropping the bombs, in that they realised democracy didn't exist to nearly the extent they thought it did.

The UK's participation in the invasion came in spite of the biggest protest in British history, with around one million protesters marching through London – each of them more than a little cynical about Tony Blair's claims that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. The march has since gone down as one of the biggest wastes of time and effort in political history, up there with Esperanto and the fight to stop George Osborne grimacing.

But according to Ian Sinclair (not Iain the psycho-geographer, Ian the author), if you thought the march was futile, you are wrong. His new book, The March that Shook Blair, “explodes the myths” surrounding the build up to the Iraq invasion and is a rebuttal to the idea that people who give a shit about politics are as impotent as Berlusconi without his Cialis. I found this argument quite novel, so I met him for a chat.

I should point out that Ian’s book is based on more than 120 original interviews with people who were involved at the time. This meant that pretty much everything he said was prefaced with things like, “a lot of the interviewees were of the opinion that…” or, “the evidence is quite incomplete and messy, but…” I’ve cut all that out because it would have made this interview unbearably long, but it should be read as a kind of round table of ideas coming out of Ian’s mouth, rather than the dictum of one know-it-all.

Photo by Stuart Griffiths

VICE: Hi Ian. Everyone thinks the protest against the war was a massive waste of time, but you disagree. Why is that?
Ian Sinclair: Obviously the march failed to stop the war, because it started a month later, but there’s more to the story than that.

What did it achieve?
I think there are three main things. Firstly, I think the march came very close to stopping the war, which is largely unknown. Secondly, I think the march had a number of constraining influences on the government in the lead up to the war, during the invasion and the occupation. Thirdly, it had an impact on the British political landscape.

Okay, let’s start with how it nearly stopped the war. What’s the evidence for that?
There are various insider accounts that have been published since the war. If you read those and combine them with a careful reading of contemporary newspaper reports, you get a clear picture of a government in crisis. On "Wobbly Tuesday", Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, phoned Donald Rumsfeld and told him that UK forces might have to withdraw from the invasion because of the trouble government was having with Parliament and the public. The Telegraph reported that the Ministry of Defence was frantically preparing contingency plans to disconnect British troops from the invasion force. This was just over a week before the invasion.

If the march came that close to stopping the war, would more direct action have pushed the government over the edge?
There was quite a lot of direct action at RAF Fairford, where the US bombers were taking off from – several thousand people went to the base to protest. But there’s a section of the book asking what more could have been done to stop British involvement in the war and people said that direct action and civil disobedience were not pursued forcefully enough.

Photo by Stuart Griffiths

Why not?
Direct action involves a more horizontal, democratic politics, and the leadership of Stop the War – who were mainly people from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – weren't interested in that. Also, the SWP were looking to get into electoral politics at the time and direct action wasn’t seen as something that would help them get elected.

Let’s move on to how the invasion was constrained.
During the first Gulf War in 1991, the US army deliberately destroyed a lot of Iraqi infrastructure – the water system, sewage system and electricity system, which obviously had devastating consequences for the civilian population. But in 2003 that didn’t happen to the same extent because of public scrutiny.

Yeah, there were huge levels of looting after the invasion in 2003, which destroyed the infrastructure. But the damage inflicted on the infrastructure by invading forces in 2003 wasn’t anything compared to 1991.

But the anti-war propaganda of the time was about shock and awe – emphasising to the public how ruthless we were being.
I agree that the propaganda was shock and awe, but the propaganda was different from the reality on the ground. Although, it still obviously wasn’t a barrel of laughs for Iraqis.

You can say that again.
Also, Greg Muttitt, who wrote Fuel on the Fire about the oil politics of Iraq, argued that the relatively early withdrawal of UK troops was partly down to anti-war feeling at home in the UK. According to General Wesley Clark – the top Nato guy in Kosovo – the Pentagon had this plan after 9/11 that they would go into several different countries. The anti-war movement played an important part in limiting that.

Well, that and the fact that they didn’t have enough troops to invade anywhere else. How did the march change politics in the UK?
Trust in the political system and in Blair plummeted. He won the next election in 2005, but with a greatly reduced majority, so it’s clear that Iraq and the crisis around him fatally wounded him politically. By 2010, a Times poll said that just under one in four people thought Blair should be tried as a war criminal. Blair has made several attempts to get back into politics since then, which have all been thwarted by public opinion.

What about the public’s attitude to war?
The anti-war movement vastly increased the public’s understanding of UK foreign policy and pushed an anti-imperialist line to the fore.

Even if the march wasn’t a flop, everyone thinks it was. How has that changed things?
It was a defining moment in politicising people who went on to form UK Uncut, Plane Stupid, Climate Rush, Occupy, Climate Camp and other groups. But it didn’t just politicise them, it also radicalised them. In interviews, people on the black bloc from the 2011 TUC demonstration said that they'd been on the anti-war march and it hadn't done anything, so they felt the need to smash things up. 

It also radicalised small numbers of people in Britain’s Muslim community – one of the failed 21st of July London suicide bombers who was captured in Rome went on the march. At the same time, the march was one of the biggest anti-terrorist actions in the last ten years because it would have shown people that a large body of the public weren't happy with the government invasion.

If politicians started buttering us up for another war tomorrow, how would you try to stop it?
I’m generally in favour of forcing the issue rather than asking the government politely. But I think that in any social movement in history, the two have existed side by side. Marches are very inclusive. Direct action is very good and often effective, but it can potentially alienate people and scare them off, so I think there’s a balance to be struck.

Okay. Thanks, Ian.

Buy The March that Shook Blair here and follow Ian on Twitter: @IanJSinclair

Follow Simon on Twitter: @SimonChilds13

More Iraq stuff:

Ciaron O'Reilly Has Destroyed Loads of US Warplanes with a £20 Hammer

It's Been a Decade Since the Huge Anti-Iraq War Demonstration

George Bush and Tony Blair are Officially War Criminals

Simon Mann Was Asked to Help Start the Iraq War